Using ethics loophole, Sen. Lauren Book votes to give her nonprofit $1.5 million

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Lauren Book’s page on Florida Senate web site.

Broward State Sen. Lauren Book voted “yes” last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit she founded and leads as its $135,000-a-year chief executive officer.

A gaping loophole in Florida Senate ethics rules allowed Book to cast her vote despite her apparent conflict of interest. The same loophole also meant she didn’t have to disclose her conflict publicly.

Senators are forbidden by ethics rules from voting “on any matter” in which they or an immediate family member would privately gain – except when it comes to votes on the annual General Appropriations Act. Abstaining senators must also disclose the nature of their interest in the matter, according to the 335-page Florida Senate Rules and Manual.

“Legislators are allowed to vote on issues that may benefit their profession,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan watchdog Integrity Florida. “But it becomes questionable when it is a direct appropriation to an entity that a legislator controls and that would directly benefit that legislator.”

Lauren’s Kids, whose chairman is prominent lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, has in a just few years become one of the Florida Legislature’s most favored private charities. Since 2012, Lauren’s Kids has bagged more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded handouts.

Gov. Rick Scott went along with the latest $1.5 million appropriation for Lauren’s Kids while approving Florida’s $83 billion 2017-18 budget earlier this month.

How that appropriation came to be is a story itself. Lauren’s Kids only asked for $1 million.

Where did extra $500,000 come from?

But more than six weeks after the Florida legislative session ended, nobody is answering questions about how Lauren’s Kids snagged that additional $500,000. Not Sen. Book. Not Ron Book. Not Sen. Bill Montford, the Tallahassee Democrat who sits on the education appropriations subcommittee and sponsored a funding request for $1 million on the nonprofit’s behalf on Feb. 22. And not Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Kendall, who sponsored the bill in the House. Each did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and Rep. Jeannette Nunez sponsored funding requests for Lauren’s Kids in the state Senate and House

Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren, however, provided a written statement on June 12 summarizing how Lauren’s Kids intends to use the funds and defending the organization’s mission to increase reporting of child sexabuse incidents.

“There is no investment greater than in our children’s safety, and research shows that school-based education is an extremely effective vehicle for prevention and early intervention,” the statement read. “Lauren’s Kids is proud to partner with Florida educators to help arm students with knowledge about personal safety and accessing help.”

VanSusteren did not respond to a follow-up list of questions emailed on June 15 that again requested an explanation of how Lauren’s Kids’ funding request got bumped up from $1 million to $1.5 million between April 27 and May 8. That’s when House and Senate members went into conference committees to hash out the final budget bill. Sen. Book was a conferee for the appropriations conference committee on health care and human services. Montford was a conferee on the committee for education.

Wilcox said Sen. Book should be forthcoming about the additional $500,000 Lauren’s Kids received. “At the very least, she should be as transparent as possible on how that funding was decided,” he said. “It already doesn’t look good to the public given it is a dicey relationship for her in the first place as a sitting legislator who is also a recipient of taxpayer dollars.”

Lauren Book, 32, is a freshman legislator from Plantation. She assumed office just seven months ago after running unopposed and has quickly ascended the state’s political ranks. She is the Democratic Leader Pro Tempore and chairwoman of the Senate environmental preservation and conservation committee. She also sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees. Her father’s clients contributed significantly to her campaign and political action committee.

In March, Sen. Book told Florida Bulldog she was advised by Senate counsel “that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not.” Sen. Book, who was sexually abused by her nanny in her early teens, said she resigned from the board of directors of the foundation that raises money for Lauren’s Kids and that her salary was restructured to “ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work.”

At the time, Sen. Book said the Florida Department of Education requested that the Legislature provide $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids to continue its “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, a program that teaches students, teachers and parents how to spot signs of child sex abuse and the importance of reporting sex crimes against children.

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

The curriculum is made available to children at all grade levels in public and charter schools in all 67 Florida counties, but school districts are not required to teach it. For instance, Indian River County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools do not use the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, according to spokespersons for both districts. Miami-Dade Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, uses “Safer, Smarter” at only 80 out of 392 schools, said spokesman John Schuster.

“The curriculum is implemented as classroom guidance lessons facilitated by the school counselor or school social worker,” Schuster said. “The counseling professionals choose the classes where the students will receive the curriculum.”

Data lacking on curriculum results

Schuster said Miami-Dade Public Schools does not track or have any data confirming that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum has resulted in the reporting of child sex-abuse incidents that would otherwise go undetected. “These reports are made directly to the Department of Children and Families and are anonymous,” he said. “We have no access to this reporting information.”

In VanSusteren’s June 12 statement, she defended Lauren’s Kids work by citing an unverified and questionable  2015 poll the organization commissioned that concluded one in three girls and one in five boys will be victims of sexual abuse by the time they graduate 12th grade. By applying those statistics to the overall public schools student population in Florida, there are “at least 540,000 child victims currently enrolled Florida’s K-12 schools,” the statement read.

VanSusteren insisted 95 percent of child sex abuse is preventable through education and awareness, and that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum works. “Students who receive education about personal safety and accessing help in unsafe situations are three times more likely to speak up if they are being harmed,” VanSusteren said. “The funds allocated to Lauren’s Kids during fiscal year 2017-2018 will be used to continue our work to bring life-saving resources to Florida classrooms – as recommended in the Department of Education budget, as well as the Governor’s budget.”

However, the Florida Department of Education did not make the funding request for the curriculum, said department press secretary Audrey Walden. She explained the Legislature and the governor must first approve the funding and the department then disperses the funds to Lauren’s Kids and other nonprofit groups that get state money. Organizations must apply to the department and provide a breakdown on how the funds will be spent.

In its March 31 application, Lauren’s Kids stated it would spend $800,000 to print and distribute educational materials and maintain two websites associated with the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum; $100,000 to produce a digital conference; and two separate $50,000 expenditures for an evaluation survey, online training modules for teachers and principals and an educational fair.

“Please note that the department does not require schools to use the curriculum referenced,” Walden said. “It is implemented in schools at the discretion of each school district.”

According to an online legislative database used to track the Lauren’s Kids appropriation, Sen. Montford sponsored a $1 million funding request the same day that Kelly Mallette, governmental affairs director for Ronald L. Book P.A., lobbied the subcommittee on behalf of Lauren’s Kids and three other nonprofits the firm represents.

Montford, who is also the chief executive of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, has sponsored previous funding requests for Lauren’s Kids. He sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees alongside Sen. Book.

According to Montford’s 2016 campaign finance reports, Ron Book, his wife Patricia and his law firm each gave $1,000 to the senator’s re-election effort. Ronald L. Book P.A. also contributed $2,500 in 2014 to a now-defunct political action committee chaired by Montford.

On the House side, the re-election campaign of Rep. Nunez, who sponsored a $1 million funding bill on behalf of Lauren’s Kids, also got $1,000 contributions from Ron Book, his wife and his law firm. Montford and Nunez did not respond to four messages left with their legislative assistants the week of the June 5-9 special session.

Senate push to expand lobbyist registration to special districts like Broward Health

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Florida Senate Chamber

Florida Senate Chamber

A bill to broaden water management district lobbyist registration rules to apply to hospital districts, expressway and port authorities, children’s services districts and other special taxing districts with budgets in excess of $5 million is moving through the Florida Senate.

More than a half-dozen large, special-purpose taxing districts in South Florida would be impacted by the change. The biggest: the North Broward Hospital District, also known as Broward Health, which levied nearly $150 million in property taxes in 2012.

SB1372, sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, seeks to build on ethics reforms enacted last year while he was Senate president that for the first time applied state lobbying rules to special-purpose governments that raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

The proposed changes in this year’s omnibus government accountability bill would require lobbyists to publicly register, identify their clients and disclose any direct or indirect business or financial relationships with officials or employees of the entity being lobbied.

“Our bill has progressed well through both the House and the Senate,” said Gaetz, referring to a related measure, HB1063, sponsored by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Eustis. “I’m reasonably certain that the bill will get to the floor” for a vote.

The bill is a further legislative response to a January 2014 investigation by FloridaBulldog.org – formerly known as Broward Bulldog – that found nearly all of the state’s 1,000 independent special districts do not require lobbyists who appear before them to register or disclose any information about themselves or their clients. Collectively, those limited-purpose governments raise and spend billions in public dollars every year.

“Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue,” Gaetz said of the investigation that was supported by a grant from the Washington-based Fund for Investigative Journalism.

‘A LOGICAL EXTENSION’

Frank Palen, a West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in government law and special districts, called the proposal “a logical extension of last year’s bill.”

“The goal should always be to encourage maximum transparency. I think this bill achieves that goal without imposing significant administrative burdens or costs by focusing on the types of districts that should most interest the public,” Palen said.

There are 134 active independent special districts in Florida with ad valorem taxing power, including those that provide libraries, utilities and fire and mosquito control.

Other smaller districts, where lobbyists are rarely seen, rely on various user fees, assessments, tolls and other sources to finance and maintain facilities.

This year’s bill is currently before the Senate Rules Committee after sailing through two other committees by unanimous votes last month. It obliges the state ethics commission to investigate sworn complaints about registration violations and to make findings and recommendations to the governor, which can include penalties ranging from public censure to a fine or restitution.

Lobbyists would be required to pay an annual fee of $40 for each client to fund the registration system if the bill passes.

The bill includes other changes to governmental ethics policies, notably making it a first-degree misdemeanor for government officials to provide prohibited extra compensation such as bonuses, golden parachutes or hush money to state officials or contractors.

That provision was met with strong opposition, particularly from public hospitals. “There are lots of people working behind the scenes on this, demanding exemptions from the bill,” Gaetz said.

One of those who pushed on the hospitals’ behalf was Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, but he withdrew his amendment.

The bill would also require counties and school boards to take action in response to the recommendations of auditors. It would also strengthen collection methods against politicians and state employees with unpaid fines for violations of financial disclosure requirements.

Other reforms include post-employment lobbying restrictions would also be applied to certain individuals with Enterprise Florida, its divisions and the Florida Development Finance Corporation.

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